Fred Stone’s grimace told it all. He was straight-shooting, no-nonsense plant manager at a leading automation company in the American Midwest, where poor third quarter numbers had worsened his already bad mood — the disappointing year was continuing…

The Company Story

It had become abundantly clear to him in-house measures were not solving problems of overall process inefficiency, not to mention an ever-shrinking bottom line. A frustrated and increasingly desperate C-suite wanted solutions, not excuses, and Fred felt like he and his team were taking most of the blame, whether they deserved it or not.

Jobs at this particular plant in this small town were taken deadly serious — not just because they were considered the best gig in town, but because they were the only gig in town for skilled labor. What’s more, chatter of a potential plant closing only made matters worse.

So, when word came from above that SBTI consultants would be partnering with Fred‘s team to help find solutions and improve the process, he welcomed them. For Fred had long felt that his critiques of the process had fallen on deaf ears within the top leadership and he longed to be heard out…

The Current Situation

Fred‘s main problem was that the plant had been receiving the wrong parts on the bill of materials and the wrong circuit designs for the electrical control panels they assembled. Protocol was to flag such flaws with change notices and send them back to Engineering for further inspection. Engineering response turnaround time inevitably caused delays in the process, costing hundreds of hours of manufacturing downtime per week — an overall waste of time, money and resources. Not to mention an angry customer. 

The Symptoms

During initial assessment, Fred and his team detailed the process roadmap to consultants. They then worked hand-in-hand to gather data not only to determine the symptoms of the problems in the process but also to assign some financial numbers to the lost capacity – well over $5 million at this automation plant alone. These glaring wastes made it all too clear that Fred would have to creatively engage Engineering to improve the process.  Easier said than done….

Engineers themselves were fighting to keep up with their normal, busy workload in addition to the challenges of trouble shooting recall notices from Manufacturing. Change notices represented 5% of Engineering’s overall output, yet took up over 30% of their time.

The Approach

Instead, with the help of consultants, Fred would design a new plan. His challenge was to come up with the proper language and techniques to approach Engineering, especially the essential decision makers, all the while limiting critiques to the process itself, not personnel.  Singling out an engineer’s poor performance at this stage would only bruise egos and discourage the needed co-operation between two groups who traditionally approached problems in different ways. What’s more, there was an actual physical divide — the two departments were not located on the same site, nor even the same town, but 100 miles apart.

Fred left the first meeting with Engineering at the start of November discouraged. No one was departing from the status quo nor leaving his comfort zone too soon.

Understanding Root Causes

Yet, slowly during weekly meetings over the next six weeks, he and his engineering colleagues were able to get on the same page for using the same problem-solving methodology (Lean Six Sigma) and language to approach the process, albeit using different inputs from their respective sides of the fence. And with this new common language and approach, they had the tools to build strategy to solve problems at hand. Fred’s grimace was slowly mellowing.

The Rallying Call to Action

Fred knew it was not only process talk. Personnel actually did matter.   A stakeholder analysis would help strategically determine who in Engineering could best influence, for example, VPs of Engineering and how. Fred had some ideas who such “influencers“ would be. And they became coaches of what and what not to say to top-dog engineers who actually had the authority to make decisions and affect real change.

As Christmas rolled around, Fred’s team from the plant and colleagues in Engineering were rapidly gaining fluency in the same language for building strategy, adept with tools for creating systems of measurement and recognizing the symptoms of problems. During weekly team meetings (alternating between the two work sites) Fred was defining the process with other top engineers in addition to discovering problems within the process and even creating new processes to execute a winning solution.

The Results

As far as numbers…

  • The average Engineer turnaround time for change notices went from over 6 days to less than 3 days – more than 50% improvement.
  • Overall change notices were reduced by 30%.
  • Total savings attibuted to the improved process were over $10 million.

As spring rolled around, Fred even cracked a smile while bidding farewell to a large number of consultants – in-house initiatives he developed over recent months were working effectively on their own. And also lightening his mood…